A Tale of Two Metros
Seoul and DC opened their subways in 1974. I rode both for the first time in 1979. Both had about the same number of stations five or six stations on one line. What a difference 45 years has made. Seoul has build a world class subway system with over 600 stations stretching over 200 miles, while DC has build five lines and many people consider it to be among the worst subway systems in the world. I rode both for the first time in 1979 and I have been riding both ever since. I love the Seoul Metro and am glad that it has become one of the best subways in the world and I am very disappointed at the deterioration of the DC subway system and concur in the opinion that is now one of the worst mass transit systems in the world.
Seoul World Class System in 45 Years
45 years later since opening in 1974, the Seoul city subway has grown to be one of the biggest subway system in the world with 19 lines over 600 station stretching over 200 miles connecting many outlining cities too so as part of one integrated mass transit system. it is fast efficient cheap safe and most people in the soul metro area live within a half a mile of a station. there are five more lines being planned and build. By 2025 there will be over 700 stations. The signs are bilingual and all announcements are in four languages and are very clear. Each subway station has a has a TV screen for stop announcements in four languages – Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English The fair machines operate in four languages as well. The subway attendance all speak some English and are very helpful and friendly. Every subway stop has clean restrooms. Every station has services and restaurants a number of stations featuring long underground shopping malls. The metro system makes so much money in renting shops and services and advertising that the fares are heavily subsided. You can pay by phone, credit card or T transit card. The trains are very clean and people can eat on the train without fear of being arrested. Close to 70% use the train frequently . The trains are safe, violent crime is unheard of, and there has never been a derailment or serious accident. and the trains are repaired quickly, maintenance is never neglected. Foreign visitors love the system and use it frequently as it is quite foreigner friendly. Ridership at night is quite strong due to newly imposed strict drunk driving laws.
DC Metro a Broken System
Contrast that with the DC Metro. The DC Metro has five lines about 125 stations and will finally connect to the Dulles Airport next year, 50 years after first planning to extend to the airport. the system was planned before the dramatic development of suburban Virginia and Maryland and the system does not serve the suburban areas very well as the majority of the train stations are in DC, or Arlington county. Because there is only one tunnel under the river trains to Virginia are forced to use one tunnel making it difficult to schedule trains. The train are expensive, overcrowded, dangerous and only about 25% of the region are within a one mile walk to the a train stations. there have been a number of derailments, fires, and violent attacks on the subway. It takes months to repair the escalators which are frequently broken. The stations do not have restrooms or any service and is against the law to eat or drink on the train. The Subway has just added Wifi, You can not pay by phone, or credit card. The loudspeaker system is very poor and most of the time you cannot hear the announcement; announcements are only in English, and occasionally Spanish. The subway fare machines are also only in English. The cost to use the metro is about 10 times the cost of using the Seoul Metro, in recent years, a number of stations have been taken off-line for repairs. The attendants are not friendly or helpful. Only ten percent of the public use the metro but half of tourists use the metro. and the metro is confusing and foreigner unfriendly.
What Accounts for the Difference in Outcomes?
What accounts for these different outcomes for systems that were build in the same year?
Political Will to Construct a World Class System in Seoul
First and foremost the Korean government put money, effort and political will into building a modern world class transportation and infrastructure most of the cost of the metro comes through rental revenues and advertisement income. Less than 10 % comes from fares because the government subsidizes fares to keep the cost of using the system very reasonable to ensure larger ridership.
Second in Korea public domain laws are very strong and it is almost impossible to block extensions of either subways or freeway system and there would be no support for blocking construction. In fact there is strong support for continuing expanding the system and five more lines are under planning or construction when the system is completed in a few years it will be perhaps this second largest system in the world.
Third there is no requirements for environmental impact assessments or other regulatory burdens that make it difficult to build public infrastructure in the United States
Forth there is broad public support for Government investment in infrastructure.
Fifth the subway system is managed very efficiently. There are actually four Corporation involved but coordination it’s very well-done and the user does not even know that there are four corporations involved, for the user there is only one system. Transfers between different lines is easy as there are always underground passageways connecting the different lines.
Finally and most importantly, everyone uses the metro, even the wealthy use the system from time to time, It is truly a mass transit system for the benefit of the public.
Contrast this with the DC Metro Experience – lack of political will to construct and maintain a world class system
The DC Metro generates about half of revenues through fares, There is no rental income, but some advertisement income and parking fee income as well. . Keeping fares low was never a priority for the system. There is no dedicated funding. The system is run jointly by DC ,Virginia, Maryland and the federal government and they don’t often agree on fundamental issues, and no one is really in charge. Lack of funding especially no rental income and marginal ad revenue and parking revenues, has always meant that the system neglected maintenance to the point that they have to rebuild the system station by station at a very high cost. The constant construction has resulted in many riders fleeing the system, leading to decreased revenues and the need to increase fares due to the shortage of fare income. In many respects the DC metro system is a perfect case study of how not to manage a large transit system whereas the Seoul system is a poster child for proper transit system management.
Second although there is support for the Metro among residents of DC there is not that much support in the outer suburbs and congressman from rural areas are hostile to spending tax dollars to support public transit improvements as it does not benefit their constituents. Due to Gerrymandering and the requirement that each state has two Senators, rural interests are vastly over represented in congress. Related to this is the widespread feeling that all government spending is somehow bad, and that the private sector will and should solve all problems. The Republican party is also committed to keeping taxes as low as possible especially for the rich donor class, and starving the federal government of needed funds for such things as infrastructure improvements. and will not consider raising taxes today for infrastructure especially mass transit. There is a wide spread feeling that transit systems should be funded entirely through fares, while freeways should be kept free to users.
Only Losers Use Public Transit
Since so few people actually use the system, and there is a widespread feeling that only lower class people use the system, there is little political support for the system which is used by other people. Or as Homer Simpson said once, “only losers ride the bus.” Unfortunately the view is widespread in the U.S. As a result, US infrastructure has been consistently rated a D- grade by the American Association for Civil Engineering. a
Government Quit Investing in Infrastructure Starting in the late 70’s
Related to this the government starting in the 1980s quit making investments in public infrastructure and the cost to rebuild American infrastructure will exceed $3 trillion. There is no political well to cut bloated defense and national security spending to devote to rebuilding infrastructure nor is there any willingness to raise taxes to pay for infrastructure investments.
Third environmental regulations, legal restrictions and the NIMBY ( Not in my backyard) feeling makes planning and funding infrastructure very difficult.
Fourth the system was not planned out very well there’s no equivalent to the number two line circular line and transferring between stations is difficult . There is one station where two lines come together about a half a mile apart but there is no underground passageway connecting the two lines. When the system was planned in the late 60’s, most people commuted to jobs in the district or in Arlington county. No one anticipated the rapid development of Fairfax, London and Prince William counties in Virgina and suburban Maryland as well. Thus the stations no longer go where people need to go.
Kissinger Moved the Metro from the State Department Fearing Some One Would Bomb the State Department
An interesting anecdote is that the original plan was for a Metro stop under the State Department with an underground passageway to the Kennedy Center .Kissinger felt that someone might blow up the State Department ordered the line to be relocated 3/4 mile away, and an underground passage way to the Kennedy center was never built.
The plan station in Georgetown was block by opposition from mostly white locals who were afraid too many black undesirables would be able to easily get to Georgetown.
Finally because the metro is divided between three states and the federal government and no one is really charge it is very difficult to manage the system. This is compounded by the lack of dedicated funding and no rental income. All of which makes it difficult to keep up on maintenance or to expand the system which needs to be done. The DC metro area has grown to over 7 million people and is close to NYC in population density without the transit and other infrastructure to support such a large population.
Recommendations for DC Metro
My recommendations to the DC metro system is to ask for dedicated funding, to open retail services in all stations in order to the increase revenues and ridership. Add restrooms to each station. Lift the ban on eating and drinking on the trains. Fix the announcement system and make all announcements in English, Spanish and perhaps Chinese? make the fare boxes trilingual as well.
Reorganize the system to become the Metropolitan Metro authority with authority over the trains, the bus systems and the commuter railroads. An advisory committee consisting of representatives of DC, Maryland, Virginia, the Federal Government, riders and employees would advise the board.
Expand or Die
The DC metro needs to dramatically expand the number of stations, doubling the number of stations within ten years and expanding the system all the way to Quantico in Virginia and all the way to Baltimore where it would connect to the Baltimore transit system. They also need to construct another tunnel under the river.
the Metro system needs to develop an ambitious plan to double the number of station within ten years including building a new tunnel underground river under the Potomac River and building two Circular lines, an inner line and an outer line, perhaps on top of 495, 395 and 295, (Note: Seoul needs to build an outer circular line as well end note)
. One line would go down to Quantico, going through Ford Belvoir, another line should connect Springfield to Tysons and a final line should be constructed along Columbia Pike and Little River Turnpike. in Maryland I would build a line along Rockville Pike, and build a line connecting Colombia to Baltimore connecting with the Baltimore metro system.
Visit Seoul for Inspiration and to Learn How to Do it Right
I would recommend sending a team to the Seoul City metro system to study how they created such a world class metro system and learn from their success. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel and I’m sure the Seoul Metro staff would love to give you the benefit of their success.
the writer, a retired US diplomat living in Yeongjongdo first rode both systems in 1979 and has used both systems over the years. He is very pleased at the development of the Seoul system into one of the best in the world, and very disappointed in the deterioration of the DC Metro over the same time period.